|On the Navajo reservation, Maxine Roan (left) and community health worker Rolanda Todacheenie unload water Roan hauled from a local well in a pickup.|
Opponents say KNME funders got friendly treatment
Opponents of a big New Mexico water pipeline project say a half-hour documentary by Albuquerque’s KNME-TV amounts to a lobbying tool for its underwriters, a state agency and the Navajo Nation.
"The Water Haulers," a half-hour doc that debuted Jan. 13 as part of the station’s In Focus public affairs series, favors the 270-mile pipeline project as a way to bring running water to the estimated 70,000 people on the Navajo reservation who have none.
KNME received $15,000 each from the Navajo Nation and the Office of the State Engineer to produce the documentary.
Media attention to the program-funding issue was revived last month when State Engineer John D’Antonio mentioned the doc in congressional testimony. Then, on Aug. 28, project opponents laid a public-records suit on KNME and other state agencies, charging that the agencies didn’t release all of the documents about the film listed in a June public-records request. The station is jointly owned by the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque Public Schools.
The plaintiffs charge that "The Water Haulers" is “a very effective piece of political propaganda because it masquerades as news reporting from a trusted, impartial and objective source — public television.”
Not so, the station’s top programmer said in a letter to the Navajo Nation before production. “This documentary is produced to engage a broad viewing audience and is not a lobbying piece,” wrote Chad Davis, director of content. In a release to local newspapers, KNME said it “retained editorial control over the content of the film and that editorial control was written into both funding contracts.”
The plaintiffs, including an agricultural group that would compete with the Navajos for water from the San Juan River Basin, claim the Navajo Water Rights Settlement between the state of New Mexico and the tribe “would be a disaster for [the plaintiffs] and all the people who depend on water from the San Juan River.” The San Juan, the state’s second largest water source and a tributary of the Colorado River, flows west into Utah’s Lake Powell.
The 2005 settlement calls for construction of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, including a water treatment plant and two major water pipelines to the reservation, and gives the tribe rights to about 600,000 acre-feet of water per year. But Congress must enact federal legislation to make the project possible.
State Engineer D’Antonio has been working with New Mexico legislators to implement the settlement and build the project. Opponents say the pipeline project is too expensive, threatens the Colorado’s ecosystem and allocates too much water to the Navajos in a region where water is scarce.
“It is important to educate PBS viewers who could potentially make a plea for funding to federal Congressional representatives or state legislators after hearing this compelling story,” D’Antonio wrote to KNME Executive Producer Michael Kamins before production began. (Tish Bravo produced the doc.)
When D’Antonio backed nearly $1 billion in federal funding to implement the state agreement during a Senate hearing in June, he pointed to the KNME program as evidence of need for the funding.
“The reality faced by Navajo families was highlighted in a recent PBS documentary, developed with the assistance of the State of New Mexico, and many viewers were shocked to realize the primitive conditions suffered by Navajo people,” he testified in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The program’s website encourages viewers to tell their legislators what they think about the issue and provides contact information for lawmakers in the Four Corners states.
The San Juan River Basin dispute is one of many long-running water-rights struggles involving Indian tribes. Most are connected with the federal government’s unfulfilled treaty obligations to tribes. The Navajo claim to New Mexico water, settled by the state and the tribe in April 2005, is based on a 1868 treaty.
The state’s U.S. senators, Democrat Jeff Bingaman and Republican Pete Domenici, sponsored legislation in April (S. 1171) to authorize the settlement and fund the pipeline. Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced similar legislation in the House. In the Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, half of the 250,000 residents live below the poverty line, many in isolated communities, lacking basic infrastructure. Two in five reservation families have to haul drinking water to their homes from regional pumping stations, according to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley.
The documentary, available online at www.knmetv.org/water, highlights these facts and presents the water issue as a matter of human rights. In public TV’s public affairs programming tradition, it examines a timely political issue that many viewers don’t know much about. Opponents of the 2005 water settlement, however, say the production seems uncomfortably cozy with D’Antonio’s office.
Besides KNME, defendants in the suit include the governor, the state engineer, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and the station’s licensee, the University of New Mexico. The plaintiffs are the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association, Electors Concerned About Animas Water, and environmental activist Steve Cone.
"The Water Haulers" begins with black and white footage from a 1941 Encyclopaedia Britannica film about the U.S. water supply. Clips from this and other old films describe the benefits of clean running water and the advancement of American society.
“There are still Americans waiting for water to finally arrive to their doors,” says KNME’s narrator in the next scene, over footage of a Navajo woman carrying a bucket. “Why did they get left behind? These people on the Navajo Reservation use the least water, and they work the hardest to get it.”
The film visits Annie and Mark Tsosie in Coyote Canyon. Their adult daughter, Sharon, talks about growing up with unsafe water. Her 77-year-old father is shown fetching a tank full of water, which he brings back and spills into a canyon for his livestock, as he’s done every day for more than 30 years. “I believe the government forgot us down here,” says Sharon.
The doc traces some related legal history, including the 1868 peace treaty and the federal government’s failure to recognize Navajo water claims. Archival footage illustrates long-term advances in America’s water supply, accompanied by narration from years ago: “Gone are the day when plumbing was a luxury. Today the men of the waterworks industry are hard at work, keeping our water supply in balance.”
The film explains that the Navajo Nation’s lack of water hampers economic development and shows that it degrades living conditions on the reservation. Several officials speak in the film, including D’Antonio and John Leeper, head of water management for the Navajo Nation.
"The Water Haulers" describes the settlement and pipeline project as positive developments and says at the end that federal appropriations are needed to fulfill the agreement. “Once completed, the pipelines will have the ability to bring safe and clean drinking water to over 60,000 people,” says the narrator.
The film includes no interviews with opponents of the project and no discussion of their concerns about its effect on the environment and farming. Victor Marshall, the lawyer for opponents of the documentary and pipeline, says his clients believe the project will be an ecological disaster for the region. He contends the Navajo people were “used and manipulated by stronger forces” to push through a public works project that won’t bring water to all the people shown in the film.
His clients are concerned the water will go instead to industrial projects such as the Desert Rock power plant, a joint project between the Navajo Nation and a private company that aims to bring jobs and economic development to the reservation.
State documents released after the plaintiffs’ June 12 public records request indicate that the state engineer’s office had made it clear that it would use the documentary to support the Navajo water project.
In the letter to Kamins that outlines how much funding the state engineer’s office could contribute, D’Antonio writes, “If this program were to be finished by fall of 2006, it would greatly help with our efforts to lobby federal Congressional funding committee members in Washington, D.C.”
KNME didn’t follow the accompanying script outline provided by D’Antonio — though the film uses similar ideas — and didn’t use many of the official sources recommended by his proposal, but the station’s letters and e-mails indicate that the tribe and D’Antonio’s office reviewed the script and the final rough cut.
There was no indication that these reviews caused KNME to skew or change its material.
D’Antonio’s office contracted with KNME’s licensee, the University of New Mexico, to make the film: “Services to be provided pursuant to this Agreement is to produce one 26-minute and 46-second documentary on the Navajo Pipeline Project.” The agreement stipulates that final credits in the film reflect the funding sources.
Indeed, KNME has made no effort to conceal its funding sources, and the Navajo Nation and the state engineer’s office are listed as funders in its credits.
KNME employees could not comment at length on the dispute while it’s under litigation. A spokesperson said its producers learned about the extent of the Navajos’ water problem from D’Antonio’s office, and the station later developed the idea for the doc internally.
“The project came about because KNME was interested in doing a piece on the issue of Navajos without running water and specifically wanted to show what life was like on part of the Navajo reservation,” the station said in a statement to press. “The story was based on the historic/legal documentation and the personalities on the Navajo reservation.”
Web page posted Sept. 24, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee